We planned on leaving the building when blue light surrounded me, transporting me back to the blue crystal prison. I don’t know how long I was in there, but… then… I never do.
I arrived in the main part of the city, and the others informed me—and Asakku and Darvin—that we had not yet captured the man we had set out to capture when Asakku and I left. In interest of finding our quarry, I suggested we approach Earl Dregard, given that the thieves’ guild runs the city. Perhaps he would know where to find the man. It was an unpleasant realization, but if we could pressure him into the idea of helping us end the man, it might help his public relations.
When we entered the court of Earl Dregard and inquired about him. The man Gunnar approached said, “No one sees the Earl,” before retreating. On a hunch, Gunnar followed him through a maze of hallways into the annals of the Keep. The strange man Gunnar approached stepped into a patch of shadows and whispered, “There are strangers enquiring about the Earl. They may be hunters.” He then retreated into the shadows, himself. Though, from what Gunnar said, he could not see in the darkness well and walked into things more than once in his retreat.
When Gunnar returned to us, he told us what he’d seen, and we decided to see what we could find in the castle, ourselves. Asakku and I led the group into the darkness, moving as quietly as possible. We found our way to a pair of large, oak doors, and as we reached them, they opened. A man emerged, stepping out within six inches of my face. He stopped, and I heard him inhale as he stared into the darkness at my chin. Though he didn’t do more than pause before retreating.
I let out a sigh when he left my vision, and I told the three humans behind me what I’d seen. We sent Asakku into the room beyond us, and he investigated it, finding it to be a throne room. He explored the room and felt a distinct presence of another person in there, though every time he looked, he saw nothing.
“All right, Darvin, now you can light our way,” I said, giving into his incessant requests to light the area. He seemed afraid of the dark.
Sparking up some manner of spell, Darvin led us into the throne room. When we got a short way in, a man’s voice gave us pause. “You know, I don’t grant audiences.”
“Today is not a normal day. Perhaps you will entertain us.”
“Normally I would have the guards escort you out. Or throw you into the wall. But you interest me.”
“Why do we interest you?”
“You are losing my interest quickly with questions like that.” The Earl scowled.
“We are here because the Duke has heard rumors. Terrible rumors.” Darvin said.
“Rumors?” He scowled.
“Yes. Rumors of things most fowl. Terrible things happening to children.”
“Not here. That’s revolting.” The young man recoiled, a horrified expression on his face.
“Not in your court. In your city.”
He relaxed a little. “Still impossible.”
I pulled out the bag of dried tongues I’d taken from the sewer. “This says otherwise.”
“And what is that?”
From the bag, I produced a tongue. “The tongue of a child, removed by the child’s own hand.”
He dropped his wine and stepped back, a horrified, confused expression on his face. “Why do you have that! Where did it even come from!”
I told him. Darvin and I told him the whole sorry story, leaving out the child assassination of Erevel. He seemed horrified and confused at the whole affair. He agreed to allow us the use of a hall to stay in and provided his amulet of office to wield his authority and compel others to assist us in the search for the man who had done this.
When we left him, I felt… confused and sad for the poor young man living in the dark. He said he preferred the darkness because he felt safe there. He eschewed court and frivolity, he eschewed all interaction for the most part… rather sorrowful.
The next day, we spoke to the head of the Watch—which seemed surprisingly underfunded for the size and wealth of the city—who suggested we search the sewer. None of us were thrilled about that idea, but we returned to the guild headquarters and examined the complex, finding nothing new or different. From there, we descended into the sewers, following a line of burnt out torches to determine the way most commonly used.
We arrived at an intersection somewhere under the warehouse district of the city. During our walk, I mentioned the financial situation to the others. Something must have been draining the city coffers, though… What?
As we approached the intersection, several rat-men attacked us, screeching and clawing, their foul breath smelling even worse than the fetid, steaming air around us. After a short-lived battle, we dispatched the vermin and continued following the torches down the narrower of the two passageways. Up ahead, we caught sight of the back of a large man carrying a torch.
“Hey, hey sir! We’re selling rat masks today. They’ll help you blend in!” Darvin called from behind me.
Ahead, Grooven turned to face us, drawing a weapon and charging toward us. Behind me, Gunnar growled, lifting his hand. The ceiling shook, dropping rubble around Grooven and covering the floor in quite a few feet in each direction. Darvin stepped up beside me, hurling fire in his direction, though Grooven hid himself in a cloak that seemed to protect him from the flames. We exchanged blows back and forth for some time, though none of us seemed to gain the upper hand. Above us, the ceiling rumbled and cracked, threatening to buckle.
I grit my teeth against the fury I felt in my chest. Darvin snarled something arcane, and magic hurled past me, making all the hair on my arms stand on end. Another rumble from the ceiling warned me, and I locked eyes with Elif and jerked my head back toward safety.
Grooven turned to attack Elif, catching her in the shoulder with his rapier. With his back to me, I rammed my falchion up underneath his chain shirt, tearing open his back and laying his flesh open, smiting him with holy energy.
The last to withdraw, I retreated away from Grooven as Gunnar began to chant in a rumbling voice. The ceiling then collapsed on him, burying him in about four feet of clay. A moment later, the rumbling stopped. Elif’s axe turned into a shovel, and she dug through his clay prison and relieved him of his valuables faster than I would have thought possible.
We collected his things and headed to the surface. As we emerged from the building over the sewers, a nearby smuggler’s den collapsed, though it seemed empty when I explored it and looked for survivors. Despite being glad their den no longer existed, I was grateful no one seemed hurt.
From there, we cleaned ourselves and headed back toward the Earl’s castle to report to him. During the walk, Darvin played with his cards, spinning them over and over in his hands. “Anyone feeling lucky?” he asked, looking around at all of us.
“…Lucky?” I asked, raising a brow. “Have you noticed anything about our luck lately, Darvin?”
“I’m going to try it. Though… will any of you draw? Or will you all vow to seek us if we vanish?”
I sighed. “No thank you. Someone has to pick up the pieces.”
Elif shrugged. “Maybe. I suppose we’ll see.”
Darvin nodded and shuffled the cards, flipping the deck around in his hands. “This is a rare, magical item, you know. It’s… strange. Powerful. I’ve heard of it. I declare two!” He addressed the last to the deck.
I took a step back, worried about the effects and, subsequently, about Darvin.
The deck glowed, and Darvin drew two cards. The glow faded, and he looked at the card he had drawn. “The Sickness.”
I winced, knowing that couldn’t be good.
Immediately, Darvin stumbled, lesions forming on his face and hands, and his skin turning sickly pale. I recognized the symptoms of leprosy immediately, and my heart constricted. His hands trembled as he flipped the second card.
On the card, a man with a glowing staff walked down a road. Nothing appeared to happen, however.
I opened my mouth to say something when Gunnar snatched the deck. “I am drawing one card. I am… I hope I can save Darvin.”
Knowing myself immune to the disease, I hugged Darvin. He leaned into me a little. “I took a risk,” he said, his voice a little weaker than usual.
“We’ll find a way to fix you,” I said quietly.
Behind me, Gunnar looked at his card and frowned. “I have no idea what this means, but… I don’t feel any different.” He returned the card to the deck. “Though… Maybe someone should check me out?”
I examined him but found nothing wrong with him. He nodded and headed off to take another bath.
“Dammit.” I glared at the deck. “I am drawing a card,” I snarled, snatching a card from the deck. My card had a ship with a flag I didn’t recognize with rolling waves beneath it. Foolishly, I believed I could save any of them. Perhaps I could, perhaps I couldn’t. Perhaps I meant to defy the deck. Or the gods themselves. I don’t know.
It was not the best decision I have ever made.
I turned around, and a man sat in an armchair, wearing a turban with flowing silk robes with tanned skin. “Are you the one who drew the card?”
I nodded. “I am.”
“I have… an offer for you. I can take some of your life—it won’t hurt—and in exchange, I can give you a boon.”
“Could I save my friend?”
The man tilted his head a little, looking at Darvin and then at me. “No. Not even if I took your entire life.”
“In that case, no. Thank you.”
“Disappointing.” He scowled and left, closing the door behind him with a waft of acrid smoke.
Darvin looked at me for a second and then at the floor, not saying anything. I patted his back. “We should go see the earl, though, Darvin… perhaps you should stay here. I do not wish to risk the Earl’s health. I’m sorry.”
He nodded and sighed, staring at the floor.
The rest of us made our way to Earl Dregard’s throne room. When we arrived, he stood near a map on the wall with a small oil lantern lighting his space. “Ah. Did you bring my medallion?”
I returned his medallion to him.
“Ah. Good. And the thieves?”
“Dead so far as I can tell.”
“All of them?”
I blinked a couple times. “There are probably more thieves in the city. I mean, you have an issue with orphans, and they are hungry and often steal things…”
“No, no, not them. The thieves.”
“I doubt they are all dead, my lord. I have no idea how many there are.”
“Why don’t you count them.”
“Count them?” I blinked, regretting not bringing Darvin.
“Well, I doubt they’d answer honestly. They’d be arrested.”
I stared blankly at him and then at my companions. “Help,” I mouthed.
Gunnar smiled. “I think a census is a wonderful idea.”
“…” My silence was palpable.
“Do you think you could have it by… tomorrow, perhaps?”
Gunnar nodded. “That seems reasonable.”
I could have strangled him. Strangled him! Instead of answering, I politely excused myself and rushed to fetch Darvin who returned and talked to the Earl. I couldn’t understand even half of what the two men were saying and, instead, just listened. My mind spun.
Eventually, Darvin negotiated him to ten thousand gold to pay for the census, feeding the orphans, servants for our wing of the castle, and expenses… whatever those were.
I am never, ever entering a throne room without Darvin again.